Are Video Games Ruining Your Role-playing?

I love RPG video games, but they might be causing some sub-optimal habits in our tabletop role playing. So what’s a GM to do about it?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It's Dangerous to Go Alone. Take This (Advice)!​

Way back when, video games and RPGs weren’t too different. The video games often focused on killing stuff and getting treasure and so did plenty of dungeon modules. But it wasn’t very long before tabletop games moved into more narrative and character driven play which video games had a hard time following. While some video games like Dragon Age have tried to mirror role playing, you still only get a selection of options in interaction.

Nowadays, tabletop gaming has branched well beyond the elements that have been automated in video games. For players coming from video games, those elements can cause a biased approach to tabletop gaming that might make the game less fun. Below are some examples of how "video game creep" can affect tabletop RPG play styles and how to address them.

The Plot Will Happen Regardless​

While no one likes an interminable planning session, they do at least remind us that the players are not just participating but driving the story. In a video game the story happens whether you like it or not. You just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and the story will happen regardless. So the bad habit here is a desire of players to ‘just move on’ assuming the GM will just give the plot to them as they go. This often comes unstuck in an investigative RPG where the players need to plan and consider, but it can cause problems in any game. Just pushing ahead will often clue in the bad guys about what is going on. Worse, without some effort to uncover clues, the players will just be floundering, wondering why the plot hasn’t miraculously appeared.

To get players out of this mode the GM might have be initially be a bit more obvious with clues. Almost to the point of putting a helpful flashing icon over them so the players can find them. The key here is to get them looking for clues and trying to understand the plot rather than just assuming inaction will solve the adventure regardless. Once players remember the clues will not come to them they will start trying to find them again.

“Nothing Is Too Much for Us!”​

With the option to save and return to a tough problem, video games offer the idea that any character can potentially tackle anything that is thrown at them. After all, the hero of a video game is a pregenerated character with all the right skills (or at least the means of acquiring them). This is also coupled with the fact that if the video game throws an army of zombies at you, then you expect to be able to fight them off. No problem is insoluble as long as you are prepared to persevere.

While perseverance isn’t a bad trait, sometimes the player characters shouldn't attempt to face all obstacles with brute force. The GM might have put them against insurmountable odds because they should be retreating. They assume putting 100 zombies in the room will make it pretty clear the way is blocked, then get surprised when the PCs draw swords and dive in. Then they are even more confused when the PCs accuse them of killing off their characters by putting too many monsters in, when no one forced them to fight them.

It is hard for some players to realise that retreat is also an option. But if you are used to facing and defeating supposedly insurmountable odds it is unlikely you’ll think of making a run for it. This attitude might also give some players the idea that any character can do anything leading to some spotlight hogging when they try to perform actions clearly suited better to other characters.

At this point the GM can only remind them retreat is an option, or that the thief should probably have first call on the lock picking. If they ignore that warning then they’ll eventually get the message after losing a couple more characters.

“I’m Always the Hero!”​

In many games the player characters are heroes, or at least people destined for some sort of greatness. But in a video game you are usually the chosen hero of the entire universe. You are the master elite agent at the top of their game. The problem is that in any group game not everyone can be the star all the time. So it can lead to a bit of spotlight hogging, with no one wanting to be the sidekick.

That is usually just something they can be trained out of with the GM shifting the spotlight to make sure everyone gets a fair crack. But being the greatest of all heroes all the time may mean the players won’t be satisfied with anything less. There are some good adventures to be had at low level, or to build up a great hero, and starting at the very top can miss all that. So, players ranking at the lower level of power should be reminded they have to build themselves up. Although there is nothing wrong with playing your game at a very high level if the group want big characters and bigger challenges.

Resistance Is Futile​

One of the things RPGs can do that video games can’t is let you go anywhere. If there is a door blocking your path, in an RPG you can pick the lock, cut a hole in it, even jump over it, where in a video game it remains unopened. If you get used to this concept it can lead to players thinking the opposite of the insurmountable odds problem. A locked door means they should give up and try another route or look for an access card. They start to think that like a video game there are places they are meant to go and meant not to go, and that they should recognise that and not fight it.

This might apply to any number of problems, where the GM is offering a challenge but the players just think that means they shouldn’t persevere. Worse, the players might think they need a key to open the door and will search for as long as it takes to find one, never imagining they might smash the door down.

This is a tough problem to get past as it means the GM needs to offer more options and clues to the players. If this doesn’t remind them they can try other things, then that opens up the following issue. So the GM should try and coax more options out of the players and make a point of rewarding more lateral thinking in their part.

“I’m Waiting for Options”​

While there may be several ways to defeat a problem, and the players know this, they might not be used to thinking of them for themselves. They will expect the GM to suggest several ways to defeat any obstacle or interact with an NPC rather than think of them themselves. This is easy to spot as the GM will notice that any clues or suggestions they make are always followed rather than taken as a helpful starting point.

The simple answer is to stop offering options and let the players think of them themselves. After all, RPGs are not multiple choice, they should be infinite choice. So the GM might also make a point of throwing the question back to the players and ask them what they will do about the encounter. The GM might offer clues if asked, but they should try and keep the focus on the players thinking of a way through rather than giving them clues.

Gaming in Every Medium​

The issues above aren’t a problem if that is how you all want to play. But they do put a lot of pressure on the GM to hand out all the answers and takes away the player’s agency to interact and influence the story. So it is worth taking a look at your group's gaming habits, particularly new players, and reminding them that although video game RPGs and tabletop RPG have a lot in common, they should be played differently.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Oofta

Legend
See, I would let the guy just find the thing this time, and try to be less predictable in the future.
I wouldn't have as much of a problem if with a decent check if the DM had said something along the lines of "You notice some odd scratches on the wall, as if the bar had been lifted repeatedly". It's like solving a mystery. Give people some clues that they can follow up on. Give them more direct clues if they role well.

There's a lot of ways of doing it, but when it effectively comes down to "Read the DM's mind" I have a problem.
 

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EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I’ve played in a game where 80% of the session was the DM talking to himself in different funny voices as he was acting out all his NPCs.

it was a little too much for me.
I am super self-conscious about anything in this direction. Sometimes, the players want to know things, and I need to set the scene--e.g., when they first entered the ancient, abandoned genie city of Al-Shafadir, they pretty obviously wanted to know everything they were seeing and experiencing. Or when they got a tradition-spirit friend of theirs to translate a book written in Old High Jinnistani (though I guess technically this would be the precursor to that, technically something like "Ancient Rajahric" or something like that since it's the original language used by the Genie-Rajahs thousands of years ago), they wanted to know as much as possible about its contents. In such situations I try to give comprehensive answers while still aiming to be concise--but that can still mean a decent span of time with me simply narrating.

I do try to avoid having large numbers of important NPCs all present at the same time though. Usually it's just one, perhaps with a minor NPC flunkie. Sometimes two, e.g. when the party visits their friend and ally Hafsa, she often has her fiance Shen present; or many meetings with the Sultana of their home city will have Court Vizier Zaid al-Ansari present too, since "Court Vizier" is effectively Prime Minister+Chief of Staff+Secretary of State all in one. And even if there are multiple NPCs, they don't tend to talk to one another too much, or if they do, I gloss over it (e.g. "While you guys talk amongst yourselves about your next move, Shen and Hafsa have a quiet side-conversation of their own. The sort of things you'd expect two lovers to discuss over dinner, at least, when one is an ancient dragon and the other is a talented wizard!"). Failing that, I try to keep it relatively short and sweet, e.g.:
Zaid turns to the Sultana and nods gravely. "Though I would suggest additional measures in case this information proves incomplete...we should act on these adventurers' warning. Jinnistan is not known for its compassion."
The Sultana purses her lips. "Indeed. Zaid, please mobilize the army--but do it quietly. You know better than I do how that is done."
He stands from his cushion and gives a respectful bow, then turns with surprising sharpness given his build, departing the chamber with dignified but substantial speed.
She then turns back to you. "Is there anything else you would like to discuss? I know you have your concerns about speaking frankly before my vizier."
That's about 40 sec of me talking at a normal pace. (Purely invented, but completely plausible for the campaign.) My players don't seem to mind my...garrulous nature most times, thankfully, but I still worry I'm Doing It Wrong by talking too much.

There's a lot of ways of doing it, but when it effectively comes down to "Read the DM's mind" I have a problem.
Agreed. For my part, this drives me to always do three things:
1. Any mystery worth knowing about has at least two (and preferably more) prompts pointing to the truth.
2. No mystery that needs to be solved has the chance of failing to be solved so long as the party is trying.
3. Any mystery that doesn't need to be solved is allowed to go unsolved if that's how things end up.

E.g. when I ran a murder mystery, I made sure to put down like six different clues that could all point to the real culprit, some of them hidden behind false leads intentionally planted by the murderer. (Many culprits manufacture their own demise in trying to forestall it, after all.) The party uncovered all the clues, but it was one of the initial non-hidden clues that really drew their attention (the culprit used her illusion magic to change the color of her dress for the masquerade ball, which made the party Bard realize that she could have disguised herself to look like someone else--explaining why the body had been dead several hours before the victim was last seen!)

Sometimes these things combine--again, going off that murder mystery, I actually left it completely open to the possibility that they didn't solve the crime at all, or that they confidently "solved" it by blaming the wrong person. Each of these results would have had meaningful negative consequences. Fortunately, they solved it with aplomb, even reviving the victim. (Due to Jinnistani law, he still had to forfeit his position in the court, but it turned out he was cool with that.) Had they simply failed, a massive diplomatic incident would have occurred in Jinnistan, greatly destabilizing politics there and potentially leading to proxy wars, which could then spill over into the mortal world. Had they blamed a (different) wrong person, less bad consequences would have occurred, but they would have missed the true mastermind and permitted them to gain a stronger political foothold (albeit not as strong as if the intended innocent party had received the blame). By correctly solving the mystery, they significantly increased the diplomatic prestige of Al-Rakkah, secured a secret partnership with a Jinnistani city-state, and foiled the plans of one of their antagonists--all around a very successful effort.
 

I wouldn't have as much of a problem if with a decent check if the DM had said something along the lines of "You notice some odd scratches on the wall, as if the bar had been lifted repeatedly". It's like solving a mystery. Give people some clues that they can follow up on. Give them more direct clues if they role well.

There's a lot of ways of doing it, but when it effectively comes down to "Read the DM's mind" I have a problem.
So much this. I'll engage with pixel hunts with prompting, but throw me a bone with a passive perception to smell gas or find some scuff marks to tell me why this particular hallway or section of wilderness trail is worth fiddling with.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Yes, well, that was a crappy argument full of holes in the past, and it remains a crappy argument full of holes today. The alleged "causal relation(s)" (or to use the more common phrase, "associated mechanics") are always so selectively applied and any grandfathered exceptions so assiduously ignored. Hit points and how they are lost are the main counterexample, but many, many others exist (e.g. skill rolls, especially if the skill has Expertise or the character has Reliable Talent: the reason for success or failure will be invented on the spot, a narrative contrivance to explain the dice, not actually rooted in anything established in advance, exactly failing the "causal relation"/"association" allegedly required). And that is without even touching the (openly admitted) "this argument unfairly punishes ONLY martial characters, aka the ones that have been getting short shrift for 20+ years."
I wasn't presenting it in any way except that it happened and that the reasons given align to what someone who's looking for a high degree of simulation under GNS would say.
 

There are tons of modules and adventure paths out there now. While I think they provide excellent GM material, GMs/Players could certainly use more advice. Probably a good idea to promote the DMG and other such supplements that assist TTRPGs.
I agree. Although, there is a side of me that thinks that new DMs would be better off staying away from everything except some of the core books and a few published adventures. There is certainly something to be said about becoming a better DM by learning how to do it yourself.
 

Thank you. This article helps me.

I am not a video gamer. I am woefully ignorant of that realm.

I have noticed a few of these tendencies in my less experienced tables. Particularly that of expecting the plot to progress regardless of what they do. They see that they are on the plotline. They don't seem to understand that that line has bifurcated several times and that the story would be very different had they made different decisions in the past. I'm going to have a discussion with them next session about this, make them aware that the story has spun out of my control and I'm just as curious to find what's going to happen as they are. Hmm, maybe that's not such a good idea.
 

I’ve played in a game where 80% of the session was the DM talking to himself in different funny voices as he was acting out all his NPCs.

it was a little too much for me.

This is how I feel when the DM tells me I have to pretend to care about the logistics of arrows and rations. All sound turns to static and I retreat to my happy place.
This is where it helps for a DM to have teacher skills. You watch for the glazed look and change tack whenever it starts to appear.
 

HammerMan

Legend
I do DM. Next insulting argument, please.
Pre covid I knew and played in games at stores and cons, but moving to Roll20 mean my group is smaller. Everyone I play with today is BOTH an experienced DM and an experienced player...

one of the big fights I get into on this site is about "PCs calling for rolls" and I have to explain that we all take co ownership of all our games...
 

HammerMan

Legend
I wouldn't have as much of a problem if with a decent check if the DM had said something along the lines of "You notice some odd scratches on the wall, as if the bar had been lifted repeatedly". It's like solving a mystery. Give people some clues that they can follow up on. Give them more direct clues if they role well.

There's a lot of ways of doing it, but when it effectively comes down to "Read the DM's mind" I have a problem.
can I just say I would have loved (and most likely remembered the story in a GOOD way) had that happened even if I wasn't the one to find it because I missed the clue... but the answer I was given was "nothing found" because, and that DM and several of my friends butted heads a few times over his theory of 'describe everything'. To the point that (not quite a skill check) but when another PC asked if he could buy alchemical supplies once, he asked for a detailed list... like the player had ANY idea what to but to make alchemical fire and tangle foot bags... and said player even said "um stuff to make X Y and Z" and the DM came back with "But what do you buy to make them?"
 

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